by Patrice Lewis

Courtesy of Handmade Business

It's a scary time to be a craftsperson. The economic news continues to be gloomy, which doesn't bode well for those of us trying to either make a living or supplement our income through our crafts.

But it's not all bad news. Remember, while unemployment may hover between 9 and 15 percent (depending on the source), that means a corresponding 85 to 91 percent of Americans still have their jobs. And while many people have scaled back their discretionary spending, it doesn't mean they've stopped spending altogether. This should encourage you.

I won't try to sugarcoat your potential to make money at your craft while the economy is in recession. Nonetheless, a few street-smart techniques can increase your chances of selling your product.

Do your homework
Conduct a little market research. Many craftspeople, especially beginning ones, have a passionate commitment to making what they love--without considering whether anyone is interested in buying. A little legwork in advance can save a lot of time, hassle and misery over lost sales. Part of being a smart craftsperson is making not just what you love, but what people will buy.

This is where customer feedback comes in. If you attend a craft show and your sales are abysmal (but other craftspeople are doing brisk business), don't waste your energy by concluding that the visitors are a bunch of Neanderthals who wouldn't recognize a brilliant craft if it bit them on the bottom.

Instead, look at your product (or booth design, sales technique or even appearance) through the eyes of strangers. Are your items too high-priced? Low-priced? Shoddy? Bizarre? Unnecessary? (The more you can convince buyers that a product will somehow benefit them, the higher the potential for a sale.) Are you friendly but not overly talkative? Are you dressed neatly? (Multiple piercings, ripped clothing and visible tattoos have limited appeal to certain customers.)

Find that niche
I know I've hammered on this point before, but only because it's so true: You must find a niche and fill it with your product. If your product is essentially the same as hundreds or thousands of other crafts people's, your potential for significant sales decreases.

Jewelry is wildly popular as a craft, which is why so many people make it. With competition so high, you must make your product stand out, either through beauty, an attractive price or other unique factors.

At a huge multi-weekend Renaissance Faire with which I'm familiar, I know a jeweler who makes exquisite items selling between $50 and $500 a piece. It is not unusual for her to have one sale per weekend. One. It's also not unusual for her to have no sales, especially during this recession.

Not far away is another jeweler specializing in items made from twisted wire and selling for incredibly cheap prices. Her booth is regularly thronged. I purchased a cleverly twisted wire ring for $5, and I had to stand in line to pay for it. The woman's "niche" is low-priced, easily made items--and she makes excellent sales, especially in a down economy. Something to think about.

Don't be debt dumb
Avoid going into debt for your business. Debt is bad at any time, but if you whip out that credit card or take out a loan to finance your business or to purchase supplies and equipment, you're putting yourself at risk--especially in this economy. Any business has risk, so don't sabotage your growth by sabotaging your finances. Go slow and pay cash for the equipment and supplies you need.

Don't quit your day job
Don't ever, ever, ever quit your day job in hopes that your new craft business can support you. It's one thing if your business is already well-established and bringing in dependable income. It's a whole different thing to jeopardize your financial security in the hope that your brilliant product will save the day.

What if you've lost your job already? Should you concentrate on your craft business instead? Yes and no. If your lost income is (or was) the sole means of support for your family, then my answer is "Absolutely not." You should concentrate your time and effort on job hunting. If your income was a contributing factor (but not the sole support) for your family, then my answer is "Maybe." In both instances, I don't recommend you neglect looking for another job just because you've decided to worker harder at your craft business. Most craft businesses lend themselves very well to unconventional hours (evenings, weekends, etc.).This should allow you the time to search for a full or part-time outside job while still working on your craft business.

Broaden your appeal
The techniques and skills you use to make your craft (whether sewing, metalworking, woodworking, etc.--the operative word is skill) can be applied in a variety of different ways to broaden the appeal of your product line. While I don't recommend spreading yourself too thin, I do recommend tweaking your product to increase its potential in a wider market.

Think about ways your product can be modified to appeal to a broader number of people. One of the reasons T-shirt vendors do so well is because they can cross-market their product at virtually any venue by putting appropriate slogans or pictures on their T-shirts. While not every product is quite that adaptable, how can you tweak your product to make it more interesting to people outside your normal market?

I've seen women make teddy bears, for example, that appeal to everyone from little girls to tough leather wearing motorcyclists (think about a teddy bear dressed in leather and chains and you get my drift). Can you make your quilts with different themes (tractors, antique cars or ballerinas)? Can you put a picture of a spangled singer or a starship on your handmade candles and take them to an Elvis or Star Trek convention?

Passions never fade
In an earlier article, one of my suggestions was to market your product in a way that caters to people's passions. This advice still holds.

In stressful times, people still like to loosen up. And they do so by indulging in hobbies for which they are often ridiculously passionate (I know I am about mine). Here's your chance to broaden your sales by appealing to hobbyists.

This doesn't always mean you must attend, say, a motorcycle rally if leather-clad bikers make you nervous. Alternate ways to sell your product include selling through eBay, selling wholesale to a retail store that carries items geared toward that hobby or selling wholesale to catalogs.

Could your product be suitable as, say, a movie prop? Start investigating prop companies. Would your product be a wonderful addition to gift baskets? Contact companies that specialize in corporate gifts. Could your product be a potential gift or giveaway for a business' customers? ("Buy a yacht and receive a handsome set of engraved wooden tankards absolutely free!")

If people are becoming tighter with their money, you need to tap into what they still like to spend their money on. Think passions.

Now is also your opportunity to take a few chances. How do you know for sure that your product won't appeal to a certain group of people? It's worth it to try. You can send a professional letter with beautiful photos to the buyers for stores or catalogs. You can rent a vendor space at a circus. You can open an eBay store. There are multiple ways to test-market your product fairly inexpensively.

Think practical
On the flip side, now may be the time to think about altering and marketing your product in such a way that it appeals to the newly frugal mind-set.

There is undoubtedly a resurgence of thrift in this country. People are becoming more interested in the practical rather than the luxurious. How can you adapt your product to take advantage of this? If you are an expert knitter, say, perhaps you should shift your skills into useful items such as gloves, mittens, sweaters and scarves rather than potholders and dog sweaters.

For example, a close friend of mine has superb needlework skills. A few years ago she was making exquisite, but (let's face it) unneeded doilies and tatted lace items. However, she learned there is dire need of skilled needlework in making vestments for Catholic priests. She started a business making liturgical garments--supplementing her family income very nicely.

Go for buzzwords
Here's something a lot of people fail to capitalize on with their home craft product: the fact that they're made in America. Yes, there really are a lot of people seeking items that are not made by huge factories in China. Your job is to find those people.

A quick Internet search for "made in America" products may lead you to places you might be able to list your website or individual craft. Networking among businesses that specialize in homegrown (so to speak) items is never a bad thing.

What about the "greenness" of your craft? Are you particularly skilled in working with recycled or reclaimed materials or other aspects that may be interesting to those with environmental concerns? It behooves you to capitalize on anything marketable.

Bend with the wind
There's a Japanese proverb that says "The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists." We may have a gale-force economic wind heading our way. If this is the case, now is the time to learn to bend and sway with the wind. Your home craft business can be a superb supplement to help you withstand the battering. Good luck.

Patrice Lewis is co-founder of Don Lewis Designs. She and her husband have been in business for 16 years. The Lewises live on 40 acres in northern Idaho with their two homeschooled children, assorted livestock and a shop which overflows into the house with depressing regularity. Her e-book, The Home Craft Business: How to Make it Survive and Thrive, is now available.